Excellent research environment and future prospects at the Swedish School of Social Science

High-quality research of national and international significance, with interdisciplinary activities as a particularly strong suit – these are some of the concrete strengths of the research conducted at the Swedish School of Social Science (Soc&kom), as highlighted by a research assessment at the University of Helsinki.

From 2018 to 2019, the University of Helsinki conducted an assessment of its research during the 2012–2017 period. The assessment was based on self-evaluation and several quality indicators analysed by a panel.

The focus was on three areas: the scientific quality of research, societal impact, and the research environment and unit viability.

For Soc&kom, the key assessment result is that the research is both nationally and internationally recognized.

“We are pleased to have been able to combine our national responsibility with high-quality international research. It’s no easy task,” says Professor Helena Blomberg-Kroll, vice-rector in charge of research at Soc&kom.

Another strength that stands out is the timeliness of Soc&kom’s research.

“Our research and teaching were considered to be of considerable social relevance and topical socially due to our focus on issues such as migration, citizenship and the Nordic welfare state. These issues are a common thread that runs through many of our research projects.”

The assessment panel also took a very favourable view of Soc&kom as a research environment, describing it as being dynamic and having a great deal of potential.

“The panel stated that we are well equipped for future challenges. But we must, of course, work very hard to remain at this high level or develop even further.”

A clearer research profile

Previous assessments have indicated that Soc&kom’s research profile has been slightly too diverse. Its profile is now clearer, with a thematic focus on the Nordic welfare state, ethnic relations and communication.

“There will be always be relevant research that doesn’t quite fit under this umbrella. We must have a certain breadth and room for other ideas and initiatives, but we also need a core base and a clear profile in specific issues,” states Blomberg-Kroll.

Soc&kom’s research mainly focuses on five thematic networks that bring together expertise in various disciplines.

CEREN (Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism) concentrates on ethnic relations, migration and belonging.

Welfare, Values and Interventions examines, for example, Nordic welfare policy and the mechanisms underlying various forms of inequality.

Journalism, Communication and Participation investigates, for example, digital developments and the automation of news.

Group Relations, Gender and Identity conducts multidisciplinary research on the social living conditions of individuals, identities, various groups and societies.

Democracy, Political Participation and Institutional Change analyses the development of politics. Current research projects explore topics such as the connection between personal values, political attitudes and voting behaviour.

Strength in interdisciplinary activities

The Soc&kom research networks are based on disciplines, but have gradually become more and more interdisciplinary. This is especially evident when it comes to CEREN, which has been around the longest and has had a clearer interdisciplinary profile. But the other networks have also become more thematic, rather than focusing on specific subjects.

“Current social developments and problems are so complex that they often require cooperation between researchers from different disciplines and with various competences,” Blomberg-Kroll notes.

As an example, she mentions the highly topical issue of sustainable development, which cannot be addressed without the type of research carried out by Soc&kom, among others.

“It’s not an issue that can be confined to technology, medicine or similar disciplines. It also requires representatives of the human sciences who know how people think and, hence, act. Just having the technology available is of no use if we don’t know how people think, react and behave in various social circumstances.”

Although interdisciplinary activities are one of the strengths of Soc&kom’s research, Blomberg-Kroll also wishes to caution against viewing the interdisciplinary approach as the only one viable.

“Interdisciplinary work is commendable and necessary, but it has its limits. Individual disciplines can contribute to interdisciplinary research only if they are strong themselves.”

Focus on the Nordic dimension

The Nordic profile is a significant part of Soc&kom. Related research has focused on welfare and ethnicity. A future challenge for Soc&kom is to further raise the profile of its Nordic research and clarify its core, while also placing the Nordic dimension in a global perspective.

“Strengthening the Nordic dimension can, of course, be understood in various ways, and we must still consider what it means for us,” says Blomberg-Kroll.

“Does it mean more cooperation with Nordic researchers, more research on Nordic issues, or do we use the Nordic dimension and the Nordic model as a background against which we investigate certain phenomena? In the later case, the Nordic model is not the subject of our research, but provides the context within which we operate.”

Soc&kom has raised its research profile in Finland and abroad through the increasing participation of its researchers in research networks, research centres and other forms of cooperation. One of the most recent examples is INEQ, or the Helsinki Inequality Initiative, which brings together researchers from several University of Helsinki faculties. The idea is that Soc&kom will further increase its research cooperation, particularly its more formal aspects, for example, the cooperation taking place in research centres.

Integrated into the new strategic plan

Helena Blomberg-Kroll says that the results of the research assessment were published at a good time as both Soc&kom and the University of Helsinki are currently preparing their new strategic plans. Soc&kom must now identify the key parts of the assessment and integrate them into the new strategic plan.

“We will draw up a fairly concrete plan, highlighting the areas we wish to pay particular attention to, based on what the assessment indicated.”

The assessment concentrated on a time period characterised by major changes and turbulence at Soc&kom, including an education reform that encompassed the whole University and resulted in Soc&kom launching a master’s programme together with the Faculty of Social Sciences. The period also coincided with cost savings and a comprehensive administrative reform at the University.

“Despite many simultaneous events and the difficult circumstances, we were able to work successfully with our research issues. We hope that no major changes occur in the near future.

“We now have excellent opportunities and have received a great deal of project funding. We also have new staff eager to engage in research, and those who have been with us for a longer time are looking forward to focusing on their research with no significant threats on the horizon.”